El Shafee Elsheikh

El Shafee Elsheikh is a U.S.-designated British member of ISIS who previously belonged to the four-member ISIS cell known as “The Beatles.” Led by deceased ISIS executioner Mohammed Emwazi, a.k.a. Jihadi John, The Beatles also included British citizens Aine Davis and Alexanda Amon Kotey. The four were responsible for holding captive and beheading 27 hostages, including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and American aid worker Peter Kassig.“State Department Terrorist Designations of El Shafee Elsheikh, Anjem Choudary, Sami Bouras, Shane Dominic Crawford, and Mark John Taylor,” U.S. Department of State, March 30, 2017, https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2017/03/269306.htm; “State Department Terrorist Designation of Alexanda Amon Kotey,” U.S. Department of State, January 10, 2017, https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2017/01/266762.htm. On April 14, 2022, Elsheikh was found guilty on eight charges of hostage-taking, conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens, and supporting a foreign terrorist organization.Gillian Morley, “El Shafee Elsheikh, British ISIS member, convicted on all counts for deadly kidnapping plot,” CBS News, April 14, 2022, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/isis-el-shafee-elsheikh-verdict/.

Elsheikh’s parents, Rashid Sidahmed Elsheikh and Maha Elgizouli, escaped Sudan’s civil war in 1993 and moved to the White City district of London’s Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. Elsheikh’s father left the family when he was 7 years old. Elsheikh went on to study mechanical engineering at Acton College in London. In 2008, 19-year-old Elsheikh was stabbed multiple times during a fight with a gang member. Elsheikh’s older brother, Khalid, then got into a fight with the assailant, who was subsequently killed in related gang violence. Khalid Elsheikh was sentenced to 10 years in prison for possession of a firearm with the intent to endanger life.Jane Bradley, “My Son The ISIS Executioner,” BuzzFeed News, May 23, 2016, https://www.buzzfeed.com/janebradley/my-son-the-isis-executioner?utm_term=.kb7mpRRLJb#.euJoZRRaXD.

At age 21, Elsheikh married an Ethiopian woman in Canada, whom he met while visiting family in Toronto. But British immigration rules reportedly prevented him from bringing her to the United Kingdom. According to Elsheikh’s family, he returned to London angry at the British government for denying his wife entry.Jane Bradley, “My Son The ISIS Executioner,” BuzzFeed News, May 23, 2016, https://www.buzzfeed.com/janebradley/my-son-the-isis-executioner?utm_term=.kb7mpRRLJb#.euJoZRRaXD.

In 2011, Elsheikh befriended an Eritrean man whose father promoted Islamist propaganda. Elsheikh’s mother reportedly warned the pair to stay away from her son. But Elsheikh soon after began listening to recordings of U.N.-designated Islamist preacher Hani al-Sibai, who maintains freedom of movement in London. Within three weeks, Elsheikh changed his behavior and style of dress to conform with al-Sibai’s teachings.James Fielding, Sarah White, and Rod Ardehali, “‘The fact he's still alive will be a big relief’: Mother of ISIS Beatle suicide squad member is COMFORTED by his capture in Syria as his father admits: ‘We don't know what will happen to our son,’” Daily Mail (London), February 9, 2018, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5372765/Mother-ISIS-Beatle-COMFORTED-capture.html#ixzz56vm9EInH; Jane Bradley, “My Son The ISIS Executioner,” BuzzFeed News, May 23, 2016, https://www.buzzfeed.com/janebradley/my-son-the-isis-executioner?utm_term=.kb7mpRRLJb#.euJoZRRaXD.

In April 2012, Elsheikh’s mother traveled to visit family in Sudan to seek advice on how to handle her son’s radicalization. Elsheikh was supposed to pick her up from the airport upon her return to London. Instead, Elsheikh’s younger brother, Mahmoud, picked her up and reported that Elsheikh had gone to Syria.Jane Bradley, “My Son The ISIS Executioner,” BuzzFeed News, May 23, 2016, https://www.buzzfeed.com/janebradley/my-son-the-isis-executioner?utm_term=.kb7mpRRLJb#.euJoZRRaXD. Elsheikh joined al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria and then later joined ISIS.“State Department Terrorist Designations of El Shafee Elsheikh, Anjem Choudary, Sami Bouras, Shane Dominic Crawford, and Mark John Taylor,” U.S. Department of State, March 30, 2017, https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2017/03/269306.htm.

In ISIS, Elsheikh joined with Emwazi, Kotey, and Davis to form the cell labeled The Beatles by hostages because of their British accents. A joint investigation by the Washington Post and BuzzFeed News identified Elsheikh as a member of The Beatles in May 2016. A former U.S. counterterrorism official confirmed his identity.Adam Goldman and Souad Mekhennet, “‘That is not the son I raised’: How a British citizen became one of the most notorious members of ISIS,” Washington Post, May 23, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/that-is-not-the-son-i-raised-how-a-british-citizen-became-one-of-the-most-notorious-members-of-isis/2016/05/23/6d66276c-1cfd-11e6-b6e0-c53b7ef63b45_story.html?utm_term=.3125a25e6b63. According to freed ISIS hostages, The Beatles were among the more brutal of ISIS’s guards. Didier Francois—a French journalist held prisoner by The Beatles for 10 months—told CNN that The Beatles would regularly stage fake executions after telling captives they were to be beheaded.Mick Krever, “ISIS captors cared little about religion, says former hostage,” CNN, February 4, 2015, http://edition.cnn.com/2015/02/03/intl_world/amanpour-didier-francois/index.html?sr=fb020315isisquran4pVODtopVideo. According to the U.S. Department of State, Elsheikh had a reputation for waterboarding, mock executions, and crucifixions.“State Department Terrorist Designations of El Shafee Elsheikh, Anjem Choudary, Sami Bouras, Shane Dominic Crawford, and Mark John Taylor,” U.S. Department of State, March 30, 2017, https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2017/03/269306.htm.

Kurdish fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured Kotey and Elsheikh in Syria in February 2018. The U.S. government confirmed their capture and aided in their interrogation.Mark Hosenball and Idrees Ali, “Syrian Kurds capture two British Islamic State militants: U.S. officials,” Reuters, February 8, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-britain/syrian-kurds-capture-two-british-islamic-state-militants-u-s-officials-idUSKBN1FS34Q. The British government has called for Kotey and Elsheikh’s extradition for trial in the United Kingdom.Mark Townsend, “Calls grow for Isis ‘Beatles’ to face UK trial,” Guardian (London), February 11, 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/feb/11/calls-grow-isis-beatles-uk-trial-lord-carlile. Emwazi was killed in a November 2015 U.S. airstrike in Syria,Dana Ford and Steve Almasy, “ISIS confirms death of ‘Jihadi John,’” CNN, January 20, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/19/middleeast/jihadi-john-dead/. and Davis was arrested in Turkey that same month.Tom Wyke, “Jihadi John ‘associate’ believed to be one of the British prison guards nicknamed ‘The Beatles’ is held in Turkey,” Daily Mail (London), November 13, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3317560/Turkish-authorities-detain-London-petty-drug-dealer-turned-Jihadi-John-associate-Aine-Davis.html.

Elsheikh’s younger brother, Mahmoud, had joined him in Syria and died fighting on behalf of ISIS in Tikrit, Iraq, in 2015. Their mother reportedly said she was comforted by El Shafee’s capture because she knew he wouldn’t die as a jihadist like his brother.Jane Bradley, “My Son The ISIS Executioner,” BuzzFeed News, May 23, 2016, https://www.buzzfeed.com/janebradley/my-son-the-isis-executioner?utm_term=.kb7mpRRLJb#.euJoZRRaXD; James Fielding, Sarah White, and Rod Ardehali, “‘The fact he's still alive will be a big relief’: Mother of ISIS Beatle suicide squad member is COMFORTED by his capture in Syria as his father admits: ‘We don't know what will happen to our son,’” Daily Mail (London), February 9, 2018, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5372765/Mother-ISIS-Beatle-COMFORTED-capture.html#ixzz56vm9EInH.

British investigators claimed in July 2019 they had enough evidence to prosecute Elsheikh and Kotey. The two were accused of belonging to an ISIS cell, with charges against Elsheikh also including membership in a banned terrorist organization. The U.S. government stated it would also seek to put both men on trial in the United States.Dominic Casciani, Islamic State 'Beatles' El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey could be tried in UK,” BBC News, July 30, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-49170646.

On October 10, 2019, Elsheikh and Kotey were taken out of Syria by the U.S. military and transferred to a secure location in Iraq. Both remain in the custody of the American military. According to U.S. President Donald Trump, the two were removed from a prison run by Kurdish militia in northern Syria in an effort to transfer “some of the most dangerous IS fighters” in the region. The move came amid fears that the two would escape custody following U.S. withdrawal from the region and Turkish invasion into the Kurdish-held territory.“British IS fighters taken into US custody, says Trump,” BBC News, October 10, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-49995909.

On September 22, 2020, the British government provided the United States with evidence against Elsheikh and Kotey, clearing the way for a trial. The United Kingdom originally prevented the transfer of evidence due to a legal fight over the use of the death penalty. However, the U.S. government made it clear that if Elsheikh and Kotey were found guilty, they would not be executed.“UK sends US evidence on Islamic State 'Beatles',” BBC News, September 23, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-54255869; Charlie Savage, “British Give U.S. Evidence Against ISIS ‘Beatles,’ Clearing Way for Trial,” New York Times, September 22, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/22/us/politics/isis-beatles.html.

Two U.S. government officials revealed in early October 2020, that Kotey and Elsheikh would be brought to the United States from Iraq in mid-October to face charges in a federal court. The U.S. government accused Kotey and Elsheikh of taking part in the kidnappings of international hostages and in the killing of over 27 people. Despite claiming no involvement in or advance knowledge of executions, in an interview obtained by NBC that aired in July 2020, Kotey and Elsheikh admitted their involvement in the captivity and torture of hostages.“ISIS terrorists known as the 'Beatles' likely to be brought to U.S. in coming days,” NBC News, October 6, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/justice-department/isis-terrorists-known-beatles-likely-be-brought-u-s-coming-n1242176; Ryan Lucas, “DOJ To Charge 2 British ISIS Militants Accused Of Role In Killing U.S. Hostages,” NPR, October 6, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/10/06/920444181/doj-to-charge-2-british-isis-militants-accused-of-role-in-killing-u-s-hostages; Rachel Weiner and Ellen Nakashima, “Two ISIS militants charged in deaths of James Foley and other American hostages in Syria,” Washington Post, October 7, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/isis-hostages-beheadings-miltants-charged/2020/10/07/69762ef2-089b-11eb-859b-f9c27abe638d_story.html.

On October 7, 2020, Kotey and Elsheikh were flown to the United States from Iraq to be prosecuted in a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, on charges of hostage taking resulting in death, conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens outside the United States, conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign organization, and related conspiracy charges.Rachel Weiner and Ellen Nakashima, “Two ISIS militants charged in deaths of James Foley and other American hostages in Syria,” Washington Post, October 7, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/isis-hostages-beheadings-miltants-charged/2020/10/07/69762ef2-089b-11eb-859b-f9c27abe638d_story.html.

In an October 1, 2021, court filing, Elsheikh’s defense attorneys demanded that video and other materials from an August 2019 Washington Post interview with Elsheikh be issued before his scheduled trial in January 2022. Elsheikh’s lawyers alleged the material would substantiate Elsheikh’s claims that he was previously tortured while detained by the SDF. The Washington Post published the entirety of the 2019 interview on October 22, 2021, but the footage did not reiterate Elsheikh’s claims of torture while in SDF detention. However, in the interview, Elsheikh did elaborate on his role in interacting with ISIS hostages. Elsheikh claimed he was mainly tasked with finding out the email addresses and contact information of hostages. Elsheikh alleged he was not involved in interrogating the hostages, but conceded, that they were not “pampered. They were prisoners in a Salafi-Jihadi environment by young people who didn’t necessarily understand the law of their religion. So I’m sure what they would have experienced from the guards in prison would have been harsh treatment.”Paul Duggan, “Washington Post publishes full interview with ISIS militant linked to killings of Western hostages,” Washington Post, October 22, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/legal-issues/islamic-state-militant-interview/2021/10/22/c3411fc6-30ce-11ec-93e2-dba2c2c11851_story.html.

Elsheikh’s federal trial in Virginia began on March 30, 2022. During the trial, Elsheikh’s attorney claimed he was just a foot soldier for ISIS, but based on testimonies of former hostages, it was revealed that Elsheikh took pleasure in brutally mistreating those he held captive.“US trial for member of Islamic State group begins in Virginia,” Guardian, March 30, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/mar/30/the-beatles-trial-isis-terror-group-virginia. On April 14, 2022, a federal jury in Virginia found Elsheikh guilty on eight charges, including four counts of hostage-taking resulting in death, murder conspiracy, and conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization.“El Shafee Elsheikh: IS 'Beatle' found guilty of hostage-taking and conspiring to murder journalists and aid workers,” Sky News, April 14, 2022, https://news.sky.com/story/el-shafee-elsheikh-is-beatle-found-guilty-of-hostage-taking-and-conspiring-to-murder-journalists-and-aid-workers-12589377. Although Elsheikh was not accused of carrying out the killing of American hostages James Foley, Peter Kassig, Kayla Mueller, and Steven Sotloff, Elsheikh was charged with participating in the kidnapping and torture that led to the murder of the hostages. During the trial, prosecutors stated that while Foley, Kassig, and Sotloff were beheaded by the ISIS members, Mueller—who ISIS originally claimed was killed in a 2015 airstrike in Syria—was believed to be killed by ISIS after being enslaved and sexually abused by the terrorist group for a year and a half. Elsheikh faces a life sentence.Gillian Morley, “El Shafee Elsheikh, British ISIS member, convicted on all counts for deadly kidnapping plot,” CBS News, April 14, 2022, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/isis-el-shafee-elsheikh-verdict/.

Elsheikh is scheduled for sentencing in August 2022, but he was present in the courtroom during Kotey’s April 29, 2022, sentencing so he could hear statements from the victims’ families. Kotey was sentenced to life in prison. At one point during the hearing, Elsheikh reportedly closed his eyes, leading Shirley Sotloff, Steven Sotloff’s mother, to reprimand him and demand he look at her.“Alexanda Kotey: IS ‘Beatle’ sentenced to life in US for murders in Syria,” BBC News, April 29, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-61274332.

United States

The U.S. Department of the Treasury designated El Shafee Elsheikh as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist on March 30, 2017.“Counter Terrorism Designations,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, March 30, 2017, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/OFAC-Enforcement/Pages/20170330.aspx.

The U.S. Department of State designated El Shafee Elsheikh as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist on March 30, 2017.“State Department Terrorist Designations of El Shafee Elsheikh, Anjem Choudary, Sami Bouras, Shane Dominic Crawford, and Mark John Taylor,” U.S. Department of State, March 30, 2017, https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2017/03/269306.htm.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom added El Shafee Elsheikh to its Consolidated List of Financial Sanctions Targets on July 24, 2017.“Consolidated List of Financial Sanctions Targets in the UK,” U.K. Home Office, last updated February 12, 2018, http://hmt-sanctions.s3.amazonaws.com/sanctionsconlist.htm.

United Nations

The United Nations added Elshafee El Sheikh to its ISIL (Da’esh) & Al-Qaida Sanctions List on July 20, 2017.“ISIL (Da'esh) & Al-Qaida Sanctions List,” U.N. Security Council, accessed February 13, 2018, https://scsanctions.un.org/fop/fop?xml=htdocs/resources/xml/en/consolidated.xml&xslt=htdocs/resources/xsl/en/al-qaida.xsl.

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